Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Confessions of an Usher

I was a movie theatre usher from the time I was 14 until about a year after college. It was the perfect job to fit in around school, and being a movieholic, it got me my fix whether I wanted it or not. (Say like during the Flashdance craze, when I most definitely did NOT want the movie fix - it's one of the few movies I declared a flop during the previews (an usher sport) and was wrong. I was so good the manager of the theatre I worked at in college would ask me what I thought would be a hit and not, and plan accordingly. He did challenge me on Flashdance, saying I wasn't thinking of the chick flick angle, and he was right that time.)

The first theatre I worked in still had the old school rules about patron behavior, and we were to ask people to take their feet off the seats in front of them and to please be quiet if they talked too much. Now imagine that if you will. At 14 I probably looked 12, I was 5' 9", weighed 110 pounds, if that. Suddenly, there I am at your shoulder saying, "Pardon me, but would you please refrain from conversation." Yes, I've probably seen every variation of the facial expression WTF?

Once, a guy followed me out of the theatre after I'd warned him (I thought he was just going to pee). He tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around, he picked my up by lapels (we had to wear suits), hoisted me a solid foot off the ground, put my face an inch from his and hissed very spottily, "You ever tell me to keep my feet off the seats, you little punk, and I'll break you in half." Then he dropped me and went and sat back down. So the manager went in, got the guy, and kicked his ass out. The look the guy gave me as he left made it quite clear that if I were to ever encounter him outside of the theatre...you get the drift. I certainly did, as did my manager; I got an escort to my car that evening.

But amazingly that was the only nasty encounter I had during my decade in the theatres.

Horror movies were fun, because the looks on people's faces as we walked the aisles (looking for misbehavior, to check that the film was in focus and stuff) were as comical as you might imagine. 2/3 rapt, 1/3 in that hard-to-describe mid-eyeroll state.

The Omen was perhaps the highlight of scary films I worked. It just got people worked up. I think we eventually left the houselights up just a scootch because people were so freaked. (Now the movie seems tame, but in the day, it was one notch below The Exorcist in terms of audience terror.)

Since the folks were so freaked, a lot of them did the reflexive thing and pulled their feet up in front of them, necessitating placement on the seat in front of them - a no-no, of course.

Once, I had to walk all the way to the center seat near the front (and this theatre was HUGE, so I probably had to go past about 20 seats) to tell the young lady to take her feet of the seats. She turned and just SCREAMED into my face, abject terror. Which so shocked the hell out of me, I fell completely over. I reeled back and just went down, arms flying, over an open seat behind me. It was the biggest laugh I've gotten to date.

At another showing, this couple was off to the side, directly under a light so they kinda glowed in the dark. He was just beside himself, feet up, nails between his teeth, eyes so wide that if he'd had a glass eye he'd've lost it. His wife/girlfriend could barely contain her contempt for the movie. Heck, as I scootched up behind them, she even rolled here eyes at the screen and sighed. I leaned over, since we were supposed to whisper our warnings out of courtesy, and quietly started, "Sir, would you..." He shot straight out of his seat and bellowed, "Jesus Christ!" (In my mind, probably the most appropriate interjection when freighted by Satanic mischief.) His wife laughed so hard she had to leave to go pee.

During Jaws, one frightened soul threw her large coke at the screen when the head floated out of the shark bite hole in the sunken ship at Richard Dreyfuss. That wasn't much itself, but of course the 23 people in front of her got hit in the back of the head with what was essentially a wave, causing a near stampede for the exits. The folks on the outside of the rows nearly all fell down in their flight, blocking egress, giving the rest that half-second to consider the fact that they were pretty safe from sharks where they were. They certainly gave the poor girl a piece of their minds until I arrived with my usherly "hush."

I myself was a victim of the horror heebie jeebies once. We also had a drive-in, and when you first started there, you got the shite job, which was standing out at the exit with a flashlight to direct out and light the way for those leaving early. (To a car, it was either because all the kids had fallen asleep, or they just couldn't get uninhibited enough to screw in the car). Well, there I stood, watching the scary flick, literally on the edge of a dark country field in the middle of nowhere. Out of the gloom behind me, I kept hearing (I thought) footfalls, but couldn't see anything when I turned to look. And I should've seen something behind me from the light of the screen. Well, that went on four about 15 minutes, when right beside me there was this huge "PBPBPBPBPB!" When I returned to my post after spastically dashing away with all the grace and beauty of a million Jerry Lewis routines, I discovered a friendly horse over the fence that had just come over to me, probably looking for a handful of popcorn. I was just glad I hadn't screamed when I ran, or I'd never, ever heard the end of it from the guys.

Way back in the day, the way movie distribution deals worked is a theatre would contract to receive the big blockbusters of the day, but the deal would include two to three other small or "B" films they had to show as well, in order to "earn the right" so to speak to show the big film. On the surface, this might seem unfair, or like extortion of a sort, but this was how little films got distributed (and how my little home town saw the likes of Taxi Driver that wasn't what you would call a hit at the time). If the theatre had certain characteristics (like being stand-alone, single screen, with no windows on the theatre doors, etc.), you sometimes had to take X-rated films that the major studios made. Yes, for a while, Hollywood mainstream studios made pornos. Granted, they were nothing like those today. You often didn't see much, or any, "penetration," but they were certainly blue. Well, my boss hadn't told me I wasn't supposed to walk the aisles, but apparently he'd assumed since I was underage I would've just known that, but I thought since I was working that it was OK. I remember thinking, "Wow, they can film that kinda stuff?" thanks to my innocent, small-town upbringing. It was beyond my comprehension that people would let others film them whilst they boffed. Really. So I emerged from the theatre after an aisle walk where I not once had to give any warnings (no one said a thing since all the men sat by themselves, and no one certainly put their feet up on the seats for obvious reasons), and the theatre manager was standing there, jaw hanging lower than Wile E. Coyote's on his worst day. 'Twas comical, to say the least. Poor guy. He nearly keeled over in embarrassment when I wondered aloud why I wasn't supposed to do my job. He got through the explanation though, bless his heart.

Probably because I have a vomit phobia, two other notable events center around that lovely human function.

Once this bunch of clowns came to an afternoon showing of Porkey's or the like (notice there aren't many gratuitous titty-flicks anymore since mainstream films nearly all do that now and porn itself is more mainstream). Halfway through, these guys dragged their unconscious compadre out of the balcony door, hurf dripping from his mouth. "Quick!" They yelled, "Get a candy bar! He's diabetic!" So I did, and they crammed half of it into his mouth as they dragged him along, which caused him to gag even more. He broke free, leapt through the exit doors and sprayed the pavement with half of the snickers and whatever he had remaining. All his buddies just broke out laughing and took off. He gagged, "Hey! Wait up!" staggering after them. Well, that made me wonder. Sure enough, the lake of hurl reeked of booze and turned the pink puke sawdust a funky color I'd not seem before. Diabetic my ass. He's just had the balcony spins from shooters. His buddies were some clever motherforkers, I have to admit.

Another night, someone had yacked in the sink in the men's bathroom. Someone came and told me, and I went to investigate to see how bad it was. It was a shallow puddle neatly shimmering in the sink, not yer typical badly aimed Jackson Pollock all over the place. We had other stuff to take care of first as one show was ending, so we put it on the list for later. Big mistake. By the time we got back around to it, it had claimed quite a few victims, and the floor had at least two new Pollocks on it, and one guy was actively chundering into one of the toilets. We changed our hurl eradication policy that very night.

The only other memory worth relating is the first theatre I worked at had exactly ONE 8-track tape that provided our muzak for the lobby: Scott Joplin and Marvin Hamlisch's soundtrack for The Sting, which I loathed more than black Juju Fruits stuck to the sole of my usher shoe. To this day, if I hear even two or three notes from it, I black out only to come to amidst a destroyed sound system. You've been warned.

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Update:

Two more for the road. I didn't include these originally, because I was not a first-hand witness to them, but they're just too good to leave out.

Once a year the drive-in had what they called a "dusk to dawn" showing of four films, which usually did last from sundown to sunup. Usually half the folks left after the second show, and the partiers would stay to the bitter end. After the last show let out, there were usually a few cars left because the occupants had fallen asleep, so the final task at the dusk to dawn was going around and awaking them. One couple was discovered in an interesting position. Her hand was down his jeans, holding on to the package, and his hands were up her t-shirt, holding on to the bazooms. They had fallen asleep like that. Of course, since we (who worked at the drive-in) were all teenagers, it was unfathomable that you could or would fall asleep in the midst of the very thing that haunted our thoughts incessantly. In retrospect, I guess it either speaks volumes about their love life or the level of their fatigue. Still, what a picture, eh?

One of the duties of working at the drive-in was asking people to take their foot off the brake pedal. A lot of folks would just forget, blaring their break lights into the people's faces behind them, or would be reacting to the movie, etc. One time the telltale glow of red appeared up a few rows, so the guys went up to intervene. (Two always went because once in a while an inebriated customer would try to get pushy, and having two guys standing there helped control that.) As they approached, they could see that the brake lights were pulsing on and off, signaling indeed that love was in the air. Truth be told, it was never fun to interrupt a couple mid-rapture as it was embarrassing for all, often resulting in a dangerous, too fast exit from the ramps, gravel flying as the unhappy couple tried to outrun mortification and to get somewhere else and finish. So the guys stopped for a moment, talking over what to do, if anything. Usually the people behind start honking, but in this case they either didn't notice being busy themselves or were amused enough not to care. Finally, the guys decided to go over and put a stop to it when the brake lights came on solid for a good 10 seconds, then went out and stayed out. Mission complete, apparently. And they swear they heard a slight smattering of applause from the vehicles behind the strobe light of love.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hurf. Hurl. Jackson Pollock. Chundering.

Excellent writing. Kudos.

prairie mary said...

Great tales, Yahmdallah! Clearly there's a movie waiting to be written! Something about how there are no small jobs...

Prairie Mary